Welcome to the last, last, last chance saloon. The first two (at home to Getafe and Osasuna) of the four “winnable” games, which had been highlighted as essential lifeblood if Espanyol are to mount a survival challenge in the second half of the season, have yielded a solitary point. Last weekend’s damage-limitation exercise in the Bernabéu was something of a success, with a 2-0 victory for Real Madrid far from embarrassing. Only people who watched the game would have realised that Espanyol only managed two shots on goal and threatened to ruin Courtois’ clean sheet precisely zero times.
This is not the setting pericos envisaged when they circled the home fixture against Betis back in the summer. Los Béticos, of course, poached manager Rubi and top scorer Borja Iglesias from Espanyol, with the relationship between the two sets of fans suffering somewhat as a result. This is a relationship which is usually fairly amicable, the large amount of historical immigration from Andalucía to Catalunya meaning that a large part of Espanyol’s fan base have family ties in the south of Spain, and considerable sections of RCDE stadium tend to be decked out in unfamiliar green and white when Betis come to visit.
The protracted nature of the pursuit of Borja Iglesias in particular has put a strain on things, though, with Espanyol’s decision to hike ticket prices for this fixture to 50 euros (compared to 34 last season), being seen as a reprisal. However, it seems that any chance of extra tension at RCDE stadium this afternoon will be partly tempered by the fact that some pericos have already entered the apathetic phase – hard to blame them considering the uninspiring fare they have had shoved down their throats in recent weeks – and that Borja is likely to start on the bench, having only netted once in La Liga for his new club.
Still, this would be a great moment for Espanyol to get their arse in gear and bring the club with delusions of grandeur crashing back down to earth.
Espanyol team news
Naldo and Javi López are back in the squad after lengthy absences, although both should start on the bench. Sébastien Corchia underwent surgery to tackle a meniscus problem this week, and so will be out for the foreseeable future. The failure of the back line to directly gift Real Madrid any goals last weekend should be enough to ensure their continuation: Víctor Gómez, David López, Bernardo, Calero, Pedrosa.
Victor Sánchez has failed to recover from a twisted knee suffered against Osasuna, and so Machín will be forced to continue with the Roca-Darder-Granero triumvirate that was so successful last season.
Matías Vargas, Melendo and Piatti are all out, which means Calleri and Wu Lei should continue to lead La Liga’s least prolific front line (one each).
Betis team news
Rubi’s Betis will line up in a 3-4-3 formation, meaning the two sides will be fairly well matched up positionally. The first choice back three of Feddal-Bartra-Mandi will start, with Pedraza’s absence through injury meaning Emerson and Álex Moreno will likely start on the wings.
William Carvalho has been out since October, having undergone surgery on a hernia, while Andrés Guardado is suspended. Sergio Canales and Wilfird Kaptoum will form a makeshift midfield pairing.
Up front, Joaquín, Loren and Nabil Fekir are is pole position. All three are on good form, with eighteen La Liga goals between them. Espanyol have scored ten in total.
Everything suggests that the players should be motivated and capable of turning in a competitive performance this afternoon. But we’ve heard that story too many times before this season. Unless there has been a sudden and dramatic shift in mentality which means the team can remain solid even when they are not on the front foot, then it is hard to see how Fekir and co. will fail to pick them off at least a couple of times over the 90 minutes.
On the other hand, will Espanyol make their advantage tell when it counts? If they can, they could well get a draw in what should be an exciting game. If not, well, it could be another long afternoon.